Monday, 1 March 2010

A belated review of last week's Budget Council

Last Thursday's Special Council meeting in Darlington to agree the budget for the coming year started off slowly but then became much more deliciously bad-tempered as the evening progressed. Indeed, I wondered if everyone had gone to sleep when no hands went up in the air following the Mayor's call for debate.

It seemed that the Tories, as the official opposition, were waiting for someone else to start the ball rolling: an act of unnecessary self-effacement confirmed later by their strange decision to abstain during the named vote.

So it fell to me to start things off. My speech dealt with four issues: the quite unnecessary decision to put the future of the Early Years Inclusion Service into the budget process. Since we have been assured that the proposed cut to this service was not an Aunt Sally (put up for debate simply so the Cabinet could later prove its "listening" qualities by later withdrawing its threat to the service) I pointed out that the situation was in fact much worse: the Labour Cabinet really did intend to cut the service, leaving our most vulnerable children and their parents without the support they have been used to.

I went on to show support for those front-line staff threatened with redundancy or with having their take-home pay cut because of various changes to terms and conditions of their employment, such as a proposed ban on premium time payments for working on Bank Holidays, including Christmas Day. I suggested that it was the front-line staff rather than managers and directors who were bearing the brunt of the Council's cost-savings.

Thirdly, I pointed out that the budget was contradictory: for example, the Chief Executive's Department is budgeted to increase its income from planning application fees by £40,000 in 2010/11 as the economy recovers, yet other Departments are planning on making savings in staff costs by laying people off because of the recession and its effect on building and development. They can't have it both ways: only one of these conditions can apply.

And finally, I pointed out that many things within the budget were dependent on developments outside the Council's control.

I concluded, "Mr Mayor, what we have here is a budget where the lowest earners providing front line services are to bear the brunt of cost savings, where the Cabinet thought it appropriate to put staff, parents and children quite unnecessarily through a lot of stress and anxiety for relatively small savings which clearly, since they were reversed, didn't need to be in the budget in the first place.

"We have a budget which has so many internal contradictions that one wonders whether anyone actually read it all from start to finish. "

And a budget which is reliant for so much of its proposed savings on factors outside the control of the Council that really one has to say that this budget has been produced on a wing and a prayer."

When I sat down, members of the public in the gallery above applauded, which was nice, if unexpected.

Lib Dem Leader Martin Swainston also adding his bit to the debate, calling for an independent, outside review of the Council's management structure to determine the potential for cost-savings in the middle and upper levels of management.

As Labour Councillors queued up to taunt the Conservatives so the Tories bit back and the meeting became increasingly bad-tempered.

Labour's budget was passed on a named vote, which allowed Labour to continue to taunt the Conservatives for not having the courage to take a firm stand on the matter, because they all abstained.

I understand the bad temper overflowed into the Members' Room afterwards, though by that time I was well on my way to the Quaker for a pint.


miketually said...

All the Conservatives abstaining was a very odd move. I'd like to hear their reasoning on that.

Anonymous said...

On the one hand they did not want to say they agree with the 0% council tax which meant jobs and rates of pay cuts and on the other hand... well it was empty as they had nothing better to offer! They know that of they were in power they'd have cut even deeper! Public sector workers will be well screwed if a Tory government got in power local or national!